Mongolia is like no other country we’ve been to. We were drawn here by the idea of riding and walking through vast open unspoiled landscapes, populated by a people who are still largely nomadic, with the opportunity to experience something of their culture. Yet those very things that attracted us to the country also make Mongolia a difficult place to travel independently: there are almost no paved roads, little public transport, no road signs and only one city. Indeed even the “regional capitals” we saw were no bigger than English villages, and most settlements (and therefore also the dirt roads that lead to them) shift seasonally.
In order to experience as much of rural Mongolia as we could, while minimising the time we spent bouncing around in a jeep, we opted to visit three regions, all relatively close to the capital, Ulaanbaatar (UB). First we headed to a mountainous, partially wooded wilderness area of deep valleys and high peaks north east of the capital. Our second trip we travelled west to one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen: a wide, open desert-like valley where we spent a week living with nomadic herdsmen, going out riding with them every day and travelling from family to family on horse- or camel-back. And finally we spent four days in a national park which although close to UB was the least populated, and most wild and desolate area we visited with a mixture of rolling hills and crumpled sandy peaks stretching out in all directions with not a person in sight, and where we were lucky enough to see wild horses and deer up close – though thankfully not the wolves which also roam the park. We were joined for the first two trips, and for a few days in UB, by Kieran’s parents, David and Sarah, which was wonderful, both having time to catch up properly and sharing travelling here with them.
The scale of the Mongolian landscape is difficult at time to grasp, with vast open steppe grassland in the areas we saw, as well as arctic taiga in the far north, sand dunes of the Gobi Desert in the south and snow capped Altai mountains in the far west. Yet while the country itself is huge – around three times the size of France – the population is small at around 2.5 million, around half of whom live in UB, and massively outweighed by a livestock population of 34 million animals.
The vast majority of the land is owned by the state, and used by nomadic and semi-nomadic families to herd and graze their livestock. Other than in the few small areas where agriculture has been introduced to reduce Mongolian dependency on imported Chinese grain and flour we saw no walls or fences to divide the land or restrict movement through it. And so with few permanent settlements, paved roads or fences, the landscapes we saw stretch out in vast and seemingly unending expanses of grassland, interrupted only by mountains.
Almost every day we woke to clear blue skies and bright sunshine, so that, although the wind and the air was cold (the temperature dropped well below freezing at night) it was warm to walk in the sun during the day. The light was so clear, the visibility so good and the landscape so empty that at times it was difficult to judge scale. More than once we set off to walk to some apparently nearby cliffs or sand-dunes, only to find that they were much further away than we had realised and seemed to get no nearer however long we walked.
In the evenings we were treated to beautiful sunsets lighting the ground and hills in soft shades of orange and mauve, while at night we experienced some of the best skies we’ve ever we’ve seen, filled with bright twinkling stars and no electric lights to compete with them.
Most Mongolians continue to live in the traditional circular felt tents, or gers, which we saw dotted across the landscape like small white mushrooms, and which were to be our home too outside the capital. To our surprise we found them light, spacious and generally warm.
Gers are structured around a wooden lattice, built like a concertina and pulled into a circle, around which is packed layers of felt for insulation and then canvas to keep out the worst of the weather. The roof is supported by a cartwheel like structure strapped to two wooden pillars, from which radiate out wooden spokes over which more felt and canvas is laid, other than for a opening at the centre of the roof that lets in light and air and lets out smoke.
The scene inside gers, which are always orientated to face south, was always the same with an iron stove and chimney in the centre of the ger, directly in front of the door, and three iron bedsteads arranged in a semi-circle around the edge of the ger. (We soon discovered that the mattresses were usually laid over either sagging metal springs or uneven planks of wood – both of which proved equally testing). In between the beds were wooden chests or chests of drawers, invariably painted orange and decorated with flowery bands or eternal Buddhist knots in pastel shades of green, blue, pink and yellow. Around the walls are hung carpets or other wall hangings, and the dirt floor was covered by pieces of lino. The host’s place was directly opposite the door, with guests (starting with David as the oldest and most senior man) to his right and the host’s family to his left. Between the host and the stove was a low table on which was usually placed a bowl of snacks (most commonly dried curds, to our taste one of the most rancid and revolting foods imaginable, yet clearly considered delicious here).
When we arrived at our first family we were welcomed with biscuits and curds and with the traditional greeting of sharing snuff, and then admired photos of each others’ lives and families. To our great surprise the other Mongols in the ger beside our host, his wife and two small children were English speaking Mormons who had come to visit for the weekend with an American peace corps volunteer. Given our host had only ever lived in the countryside and the Mormons in UB we never did discover how they’d met but spent a very happy afternoon with them before going riding with our host and spending a lovely evening playing with the children with balloons David and Sarah had brought, and being introduced to new games by them, including one using the ankle bones of sheep as dice.
Most of the families we met kept large mixed herds of sheep and goats, a few horses, sometimes cows and, on one occasion, four camels. During the day, after they’d been milked, the sheep and goats would wander off to graze. In the evening they’d return to the gers and sleep surrounding them, so that often the only sound at night was of animals coughing, sneezing and belching a few feet away from us in the dark, and if we happened to go outside at night we were met by hundreds of pairs of bright green eyes.
Also outside the gers were invariably a few mangy dogs, kept by families to guard their sheep and goats from wolves at night, and which usually looked like they’d seen the worst of a few fights. The dogs tended to spend most of the day sleeping, but on several nights we were woken by their barking and wondered what had disturbed them.
With most of the population semi-nomadic herders and little land given over to agriculture, the food in Mongolia is unsurprisingly overwhelmingly based around meat – mainly mutton – and dairy, although flour, rice and pasta, all imported from China, are becoming more common and popular. Unlike at home though where only the choicest parts of animals are eaten, in Mongolia we were pleased to see (although less pleased to taste) that almost all the sheep is eaten. In fact it’s only the half digested contents of the stomach which are discarded and several times we were fed stomach, blood or other unappetising pieces of very fatty meat.
At one point while we were staying with a nomadic family Kieran’s stomach gave up trying to cope with all the tripe it was being given which while unpleasant for him provided one of the funnier sights of our trip: Kieran kneeling on all fours in the middle of the night throwing up into the sand while the goats that were sheltered near our ger surrounded him, lapping up his vomit...
One of the most time consuming tasks for the families we met seemed to be milking the horses. Every couple of hours or so, the foals were tethered to a cord tied to the ground and led one at a time to their mothers who stood nearby. Each foal was allowed a short drink of the mare’s milk before it was moved to one side and our host’s wife stepped in to start milking. The mare’s milk would then be beaten in a bucket to aerate it before it was left to ferment into the mildly alcoholic and hugely popular airag which was considered a source of nourishment and protein as much as a drink.
In a landscape with few trees but lots of animals, it was unsurprising that the main fuel used for heating and for cooking – which was done on a single pot over the stove – was animal dung. While there was an almost limitless supply to be found, as dung tends to burn fast the women seemed to be almost ceaselessly engaged in dung collecting.
Other than the landscape, the image of Mongolia that will linger longest in our minds will almost certainly be that of a man in the traditional del (the dark woollen coat with bright sash worn by almost all rural men) on horseback. Here every rural family owns horses and every child learns to ride at the same age as they learn to walk: our first host’s 5 year old son was a far more proficient rider than any of us and many of jockeys in the annual naadam festival are as young as 4, while several of the old men we saw walked with the bow-legged gait of a lifetime in the saddle.
Outside every ger we saw a saddled horse tethered to a line, ready to be ridden at any time and in three weeks in Mongolia we didn’t see a single person outside UB walk more than about 20 yards, always preferring to swing themselves into the saddle. In a landscape as vast as this, with a livelihood that involves covering large distances the attachment to and dependence on horses makes complete sense, and so every time we were out walking or riding we would come across riders herding their animals.
The horses themselves are smaller than European horses and incredibly hardy, being able to survive in a climate that offers months of sub-zero temperatures, and little moisture or pasture. Riding here has definitely been a highlight of our trip, seeing the landscape from horseback, and having the chance to canter through it. It wasn’t always comfortable though – the Mongolian horses have a short stride while the traditional saddles are made of wood with silver embellished studs placed at just the wrong point for comfort! While we were being rattled in the saddle though, Mongolian riders just rise in the saddle and stand there, on legs that must be solid muscle and with far better balance than we could muster, just swaying with the motion of the horse.
By contrast camel riding was much more gentle and comfortable. The Mongolian Bactrian camels are two humped and we were seated on saddles of piled blankets in between the two humps to sway peacefully, almost like being on a gently rocking boat, as the camels ambled slowly across the valley. Apparently you can tell the health of a camel from the erectness of its hump – if this was the case Sarah and Rachael definitely had the fittest beasts as one of Kieran’s and both of David’s camels’ humps flopped to one side like carefully parted hair.
Perhaps the hardest part of our week with nomadic families was the total absence of privacy or sanitation. The four of us shared a ger that was less than 20 foot in diameter, and into which family members would walk, at any time of day or night, without warning. Outside there was no running water, and not even drop latrines. Instead, to go to the toilet we simply had to stride off purposefully a reasonable distance from the ger and pick a spot – with no bushes or hillocks in sight to hide behind!
It is easy as an English city dweller to romanticise the life of rural Mongolians, and we certainly found ourselves envying the space and physical freedom they enjoyed, as well as their riding abilities. Yet even spending just a week with herding families showed too how lonely, tough and repetitive their lives can be, with a harsh climate, no running water, constant chores and no opportunities to switch off from or physically separate themselves from their work. Despite the obvious hardships however, the nomads we saw seemed some of the most contented people we’ve ever met.
In many ways, the lives of the families we visited must be little changed from those of herders generations before. Yet there have been some recent changes that must have made their lives incomparable easier and more pleasurable without dramtically changing their culture. In the last two or three years, most families have acquired solar panels which – with over 260 days of sunshine a year – provide them with enough electricity to power electric lights, and sometimes tvs, enabling them to engage with popular culture and events across Mongolia. Many of the families we saw were also supplementing their horses with motorbikes, and using them for transport and also for herding, enabling them to cover distances much more quickly than they could on horseback. Although these innovations are clearly not without risks, they’d certainly made a huge improvement to the lives of the families we spoke to.
Although the countryside has been the focus of our time in Mongolia, we’ve also spent a fair amount of time before and between our trips in UB, Mongolia’s friendly and likeable if chaotic, polluted and slightly scruffy capital. Although there are few key “sights,” the city proved a good base to clean clothes (and ourselves), enjoy a more varied diet than we had with the herder families, and visit some of the city’s museums and galleries. And it also gave us the chance to experience Mongolia’s number one sport: wrestling.
Whereas riding and archery, the other two of Mongolia’s three “manly sports,” are open to women, wrestling is a strictly all male affair and the crowd at the National Wrestling Palace was also definitely male-dominated. After we’d sat through some rousing orchestral music we were surprised to see most of the men in our section of the crowd strip off and change into skimpy blue y-front like pants and tight, open chested blue or pink waistcoats, and make their way into the arena. It then turned out that we were watching some form of open, knock-out tournament with multiple bouts taking place simultaneously until gradually the number of wrestlers was whittled down. We were too ignorant to appreciate all the skill involved but had a great time watching the decidedly hefty men trying to topple each other, while enjoying the crowds’ reaction to every skilful or underhand move.